Where is it?

The Kaufman mausoleum in Marquette. (Photo courtesy of Jim Koski)

By Larry Chabot

Whoever and wherever they are, they’ve hidden for 37 years a treasure stolen for their private enjoyment. What is it? A one-of-a-kind, extremely valuable Tiffany window, taken from the Kaufman Mausoleum in Marquette’s Park Cemetery sometime around 1980.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was an American artist and designer renowned for his stained glass creations. Tiffany is the ultimate in such windows. There are many hundreds of them in museums, churches, cemeteries and other venues around the world, even in the White House. Tiffanys are highly prized, often so priceless as to be uninsurable, and thus a magnet for crooks.

The Kaufman window theft is shrouded in mystery. How it ended up in Park Cemetery is a story in itself. Fred Rydholm, in his Superior Heartland series, wrote that “Louis Kaufman decided to build a beautiful mausoleum for the family in Marquette’s Park Cemetery. The setting near one of the small lagoons is absolutely beautiful. It is a scaled-down replica of the Parthenon in Greece… said to have cost around three million dollars.”

Historian Dan Hornbogen said the structure was completed in 1918. The marble slabs in the building originated in Carrera, Italy, came to the United States by ship, arrived in Marquette by rail, then were hauled up the Seventh Street hill to the cemetery by horses pulling the marble on rollers. After a piece was scratched during its unloading from a rail car, the contractor offered to patch it, but Louis Kaufman told him not to bother. “Order another one,” he said. Rydholm quoted a mausoleum worker: “It was like building the pyramids of Egypt” in its complexity. To complete this magnificent edifice, a beautiful Tiffany stained glass creation was commissioned for the back window.

Rosemary Michelin of the Marquette Regional History Center said their archives list the first burials in the mausoleum as occurring on October 25, 1919, when Samuel and Juliet Kaufman (Louis Kaufman’s parents) and their son, Nathan, were interred. More family members were added as the years went by.

“It was always written,” Rosemary said, “that Louis Kaufman built the vault for his mother, who had died in 1915 in Chicago.”

Fred Rydholm introduced the scene this way: “One window in the tomb was made of colored leaded glass by Tiffany. It depicted the same scene that would have been seen through a clear glass window in the same place. Sometime around 1980 the window was stolen from the Mausoleum during the night, apparently by professionals.”

There are disturbing facts about the theft, as noted by cemetery experts and Louis Kaufman’s grandson, Marquette’s Peter Kaufman, who said the window was exactly as the landscape outside the window, with birch trees, a creek in the middle and boulders in the foreground. Because it was fronted with frosted glass and a protective grill, it was not visible from the outside, but only from inside when the window was backlit by outside light. The thieves had to enter through the inward-opening front doors, where damage from a pry bar is visible. The removal was “clean” with no damage to the window frame. An obvious question arises: if it couldn’t be seen from outside, how did the thieves know it was there?

A Marquette resident who saw the evidence feels strongly that it was a professional job. The bolts holding the square window (52 by 52 inches) are still in place. The date of the theft is unknown because no one missed it until some time had passed. The Kaufman family hired an investigator and had assistance from George Johnson, who was city police chief then, but the search ended up fruitless.

Another cemetery visitor, who called the heist a “slick job,” thinks the window is in the possession of a collector, probably in Japan. A Marquette police detective couldn’t locate a police report, and surmised that either none was filed or it’s no longer available. Many local government records are archived at Northern Michigan University, but not this one.

The plot widens: in a newsletter on cemetery art, Katie Karrick reported that “Tiffanys are coveted by thieves since the 1960s when the market in valuable glass began to heat up. Every time I see a mausoleum that has a blank window in back, filled in with clear glass, I assume that there was once a valuable window in there that’s been stolen.”

“It’s a national problem,” said Meg Winslow, history curator at a Massachusetts cemetery, who cited unlit locations, lack of security, a growing market, and the failure of cemeteries to document valuable objects as reasons for the thefts. “It’s easy to steal, to sell, and to get away with it,” she wrote. Even fakes are stolen.

Author Ed Snyder warned of his experience after posting a photograph of a family-owned Tiffany window. He was overwhelmed by responses from people who saw his post.

“The replies surprised me,” he wrote, “with a request to please remove the location [of the window]. It’s possible the window was made in 1909 by Tiffany and could easily fetch a half million dollars on the art black market.”

Cemeteries and churches have been hit hard. Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia had seven Tiffanys swiped from its mausoleums.

According to the cemetery’s Emma Stern, “Several of our windows were stolen in the ’70s but none of them were ever recovered, unfortunately. From what I understand, there was an article published during that time that listed all of the Tiffany windows in the area, which inadvertently became a road map for thieves.”

An 1893 Tiffany window created for St. Saviours Episcopal Church in Bar Harbor, Maine, went missing in 1988. Church member Eva Davis noticed that “the whole frame was clean as a whistle, there wasn’t a mark on either side to indicate that somebody might have chiseled or done anything to it. They knew exactly what they were doing.”

The church has been aggressively searching for the window, posting its description on sites specializing in stolen art, and waging an ambitious campaign to spread the word, even using cards and refrigerator magnets sold to church visitors.

“It makes me so angry that someone could have done this to our church,”  said Katherine Whitney, who leads the church’s search. “It’s such a selfish act.”

She works through auction houses, art and antique dealers, window restorers, museums, art scholars, even the FBI.

“Sadly, we have not had any leads on our beloved window, but I believe that getting the word out is key to finding the window,” Whitney said.

Experts say the nationwide Tiffany epidemic slowed with the 1999 arrest and conviction of a world expert on Tiffany stained glass who, ironically, often advised the FBI on thefts. Prosecutors said he knowingly bought a 9-foot window stolen from a Brooklyn cemetery, sold it to a Japanese buyer and split the $219,000 proceeds with the thieves. In another case, he sold a window stolen from a suburban New York graveyard. The dealer got 27 months in prison and a $220,000 fine.

Meanwhile, the Kaufmans would like their window back. Whoever you are, you’ve had it long enough.

MM

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